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Keeping Energy Sustainable

November 17, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 46

RUDY BAUM'S EDITORIAL titled "Energy Sustainability" eloquently questioned the conventional wisdom that technological breakthroughs will create abundant sources of alternative energy and abolish concerns about global warming (C&EN, Oct. 6, page 3). The same complacent optimism also spawned the recent economic crisis and deserves broad scrutiny.

Fingerprints left by global warming are already widespread, especially in agriculture. The increased severity of droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes persistently confronts us with near disasters. Yet statements from both presidential candidates in that same issue (page 27) reflect the myth that climate change can be addressed gradually over the next several decades through technological advances, without major lifestyle changes. Scientists are supporting this deception by downplaying the imminent dangers of global warming while exaggerating the prospects for technological solutions. This situation sets up scientists to be the scapegoats for a colossal climate disaster.

Stopping global warming will require both technological advances and serious energy conservation. Parts of Europe are progressing steadily down this dual highway to sustainability. However, progress elsewhere has been grossly inadequate, especially in rapidly industrializing nations, where the output of greenhouse gases has been accelerating ominously. This collective irresponsibility has squandered precious time needed to develop sustainable technologies and is bringing us prematurely to the day of reckoning.

Delaying lifestyle changes will make the inevitable transition to sustainability unbearable. During the extended power outages in Houston after Hurricane Ike, many citizens simply could not tolerate the abrupt switch to life without air-conditioning. Unless we achieve a dramatic breakthrough to generate massive amounts of electricity without CO2 emissions, air-conditioning may become untenable, probably making southern states uninhabitable for most Americans.

Sustainable lifestyles can be quite comfortable by historical standards. With a refrigerator, cooking appliances, fans, computer, and lights (but no hot water or air-conditioning), I used about 800 kWh of electricity annually during the past decade. Even this lifestyle has a substantial carbon footprint when the energy costs for food production and infrastructure (streets, water system, public buildings, etc.) are included. Supplying this modest level of alternative energy is a challenging but realistic goal for scientists and engineers.

A populace addicted to profligate energy consumption is eagerly embracing the false promise of a painless transition to sustainability. This hoax is a grave threat to modern civilization.

William K. Wilson

I ALWAYS READ Baum's "From the Editor" column in C&EN. Sometimes I agree with him but often I disagree. His column on "Energy Sustainability," however, echoed my observations of the past few years. Several years ago, I heard Rajan Gupta of Los Alamos National Laboratory speak on the energy sustainability issue, and my view of energy consumption completely changed.

Recently, I have become acquainted with James Conca of New Mexico State University, who is the author of "The Geopolitics of Energy." Both men point out that it is not ethical to be only concerned about the energy use of the U.S. while ignoring the masses of people around the world who do not have access to any energy sources beyond wood, manure, and people or animal power. Both clearly link energy issues to quality of life and economic success. Both men emphasize the need to put both short-term and long-term plans in place to develop a diverse set of energy sources.

Yet the public, the government, industry, and institutions continue to look only at the short term. What happens when all the petroleum is gone? After all, as chemists, we know petroleum is not just an energy source; it is the source of a very large portion of our consumer products.

Robin Hayes
Carlsbad, N.M.


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